At Social Solutions, we get to see our customers make strides and take leaps when it comes to nonprofit data management and reporting. The Arab-American Family Support Center, based in New York, is one such customer. This nonprofit that empowers immigrants and strengthens families is in the process of overhauling its approach to data capture and reporting. We spoke with Stefanie Tocco Pilkington, AAFSC’s Senior Director of Special Projects and Strategic Initiatives, to learn more about how the organization is tackling this revamp and to uncover insights that can help other nonprofits that are taking similar steps to modernize their approach to data management.
Stefanie Tocco Pilkington: It started with the end in mind. When we looked at the data we capture, it’s essentially information about our clients, programs and impact. My question then became, “So what?” So what if we have information if we’re not deriving meaning from it or using it to drive decision-making? So what if we are gathering data if we’re not consistently using it to improve services? So what if we gather certain data points if we cannot understand how our efforts are fully impacting a family or community that we serve?
Essentially, this simple so what question is guiding our entire strategic data management initiative because it forces us to begin with the end in mind. By questioning our current state, we can start the process of raising our standards, capturing more actionable information and then doing something with it.
STP: Like many organizations, we’re starting from a place where much of our data is inconsistent and our data management tools are siloed.
As an example, we have eight program areas, and each have their own intake form and required fields. When staff input data, it is not consistent. As part of our plan to get more accurate and consistent data, we developed one single intake form across all programs to capture basic demographic data and then add supplemental intake forms that are program-specific, depending on the program requirements.
Another area that illustrates our current state is impact and outcomes reporting. In terms of evaluation tools, up to this point, we have not had one approach to evaluate programs, and through this initiative, we are starting with the end in mind to develop more specific program evaluation surveys to ensure we capture relevant outcomes and impact of our services. Our vision for impact reporting and communication is to have a more proactive approach, supported by a data dashboard where any staff can access the impact data they require for their specific program, which supports program quality improvement, funding opportunities and stakeholder engagement.
STP: One of our biggest challenges is overcoming existing perspectives of the burden of data entry. For instance, our Preventive Services program is highly regulated, since much of this work is focused on child welfare. As a result, our Case Planners are required to enter data into government databases and provide documentation and case notes. To avoid asking our staff to take on more data entry, we are redefining current client intake forms and processes to streamline the process.
Another challenge is consistency in data entry. We’re planning to overcome this with staff training, quality control checks and accountability. We will need to hold ourselves and each other accountable to ensure the entry and management of this initiative is successful.
STP: It all hinges on the understanding the “why” of the data we’re collecting, so we’re focusing on building a data culture. One critical piece for getting to our target state is putting a team in place to own client intake and evaluations. We’re carving out new space on our team so that we can centralize intake and evaluations through a dedicated staff of intake coordinators and an evaluation coordinator who will oversee the entire project. I have set the vision, and from there I am looking to the team to draft the process. It’s important that the people who will be running the work feel a sense of ownership.
Apricot 360 is another key piece of our plan. This data management system is a good fit for us right now because we can customize it to our vision and build straightforward, streamlined forms with required fields so that we can ensure data is captured consistently with no misalignment.
STP: My best advice is to be realistic about where you are today, where you want to go, and the steps you need to take to get there. Overhauling data management can feel like such a big project, but we aren’t biting off more than we can chew.
We are going to get to our target state, but we are being realistic that it will take lots of moving parts and steps along the way. We’re starting with aligning the team, getting the right technology and streamlining our forms. Once we’ve done these things, we can add more. Keep your “So what?” line of questioning alive, and focus on the realistic steps to get to your answers.
AAFSC provides culturally and linguistically competent, trauma-informed, multigenerational social services to the marginalized and under-resourced. While their doors are open to anyone, they have gained expertise serving Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian immigrant communities.
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